Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Chicken Water Systems

I have tried just about every common method of supplying chickens with clean drinking water. I now have a box full of “tried it” watering systems, plus more stacked in the attic. Here are some of the things I have learned:

  • Water quality matters. If you have high mineral content in your water, your choices are limited.
  • Chickens will mess up anything they can touch. The ability of a water system to minimize that is important.
  • Water is heavy. You don’t want to have to carry a full container of water in order to resupply your chickens – at least not as a regular routine.

Each water system has its own advantages and disadvantages, so you can’t really say any one system is the best. I have found what is clearly the best choice for my situation, but yours may be quite different. We’ll start with what I have tried and found lacking.

Container Water Systems

These are anything that includes a container that must be manually refilled. They are great for temporary use when you just can’t run a pressurized water line. Water is heavy though, so you don’t want to plan on that as the norm.

You might think that bigger is better since you don’t have to fill it as often. I have container systems from 5 gallons to quart jar systems.

  • The 5 gallon systems should just be crossed off the list. They are just too heavy to work with, and they get dirty and have to be cleaned before they are empty.
  • The quart jar systems are great for chicks that can’t handle other systems. I have both plastic and all-glass systems. For the purpose for which they were designed, they do a great job.
  • The 1-gallion plastic systems are a good choice for a temporary arrangement. One gallon isn’t too heavy to put into position in a cage, and it lasts about long enough that it’s time to clean it when it’s time to fill it.

Weight Regulated Systems

These systems depend on the weight of water in a bowl to keep the bowl filled. There is a fairly sensitive calibration that has to be done to get it right. Too much in one direction, and the bowl will overflow. Too much in the other direction and it will empty without being refilled. These systems use the same valve system as an ordinary tire valve. In fact, the replacement valve stems are the same as you would get in an auto-parts store.

The problem with these systems is the rather delicate valve that controls it. If you have good, mineral-free water, then it should work just fine. I don’t have that, so the valve tends to get encrusted with mineral deposits and it stops working. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the replaceable valve stem that gets ruined, but the housing also. For my water, they are more trouble than they are worth. Again, if you have good mineral-free water, these may be an excellent choice.

Float Controlled Systems

These are basically water bowls with a float valve similar to the way that a toilet tank works. It maintains the water level by means of a float the opens the valve when the water level gets below a certain point. There are two disadvantages I have seen with these:

  • They have a rather large bowl area, which means lots of area for the chickens to mess up the water.
  • They tend to be a bit sensitive to the water pressure. If you supply a consistent pressure of the right amount, this is not a problem. Just make sure you have the supply working correctly.
  • The ones I have used have been cheaply made. The molded plastic floats develop leaks and stop working. The styrofoam floats have poor quality valves. That is a real deal-killer for me. The low quality that I have seen ( and I have tried several different brands) has led to me crossing these off my list.

 Drinking Cup Systems

These systems use a low pressure water supply that keeps just a tiny amount of water in the bottom of a drinking cup. The chickens activate a small plastic valve when they try to drink from the very bottom of the cup, and that adds a bit more water into the cup. Here are the reasons why I like this design best:

  • It is the cleanest system that I have found. The tiny amount of water means that there is much less opportunity for the chickens to mess up the water. There just isn’t much there for them to mess up.
  • The construction is all plastic, except for a coil spring. Despite the high mineral content in our water, these cups just keep on working.
  • The only problems I have had is with the water lines leading to the water cups. Make sure that you use black connectors with your tubing. A white connector allows enough light through so that algae can build up in that spot and gradually clog up the water line. If you have to use white connectors, add a bit of black electricians tape to block the light, and that should take care of the problem.
  • They are easy to add and move. I keep a spare line with a kink in it available so that if I need to separate a chicken, I can snap a water cup in a cage and connect that water line to it.


A few other related notes:

  • Chickens are unable to swallow. Notice that when they drink, they must raise their head to let the water drain down their throat. Their food works the same way. That means that when they eat and then drink, some of that food can drop into the water that they are trying to drink. It’s best not to have their water too close to the food. A little distance is a good thing.
  • Producing eggs takes a lot of water. Never let your chickens run out of water. If you see them flying over fences and other abnormal behavior to get out of their normal space, they might just be looking for water (don’t ask me how I know).
  • See also: A Water Tower for the Chickens.
  • See also: Clean Water for Chickens.


  1. Dan Fitzpatrick

    Perhaps I’ve missed it, but it looks like you havn’t tried the water nipples. So I thought I’d share a link I’ve been plugging mine into 5 gal buckets for the grower chickens and it’s been fantastic. I like them because the water stays clean and they are way cheaper than buying the container waterer. However what I don’t like is cold weather freezing them. When it gets cold I have to switch back to something that melts the ice for the layers.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      You’re right, Dan – I have not tried the water nipples. I’ve seen them in photos before, but just never got around to trying them.

      I really enjoyed looking through your blog – you experiment, try different things, and write about how others can try the same thing. That’s exactly what we all need to be doing. I’m looking forward to spending some more time looking through your site. Thank you for providing that information!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

11 − 2 =